Sunday 24 August 2014

Singing Star Teddy Powers

One of the great, long-time cast members of the Jack Benny radio and TV shows was Teddy Powers.

You don’t remember Teddy Powers? You should.

Of course, he wasn’t using the name Teddy Powers then. He tossed out that stage name and picked another. He called himself Dennis Day.

It’s an oft-told story in old-time radio circles about how Dennis got his job on the Benny show. But here’s probably the most contemporary version. His first appearance on the show was October 8, 1939. This story appeared in the radio section of the New York Sun on October 21st, accompanied by an artist’s portrait of Dennis that we can’t reproduce. The part about Verna Felton’s hiring is new on me.

The New Day in Radio
Jack Benny's Young Tenor Won Place Over Horde of Applicants.

Take one natural tenor voice, add an eagerness to achieve prominence, mix well with an ingredient known as ambition to justify parental faith, sprinkle generously with good old Irish luck, stir briskly in a New York cauldron and you have Dennis Day's recipe for success.
The local boy who's making good in a great big way as Jack Benny's tenor discovery on the Sunday night NBC series out In Hollywood had sung a note professionally four months ago. And as recently as last November he hadn't even considered earning a living as a singer.
More than a few New Yorkers will remember Day as one Eugene Dennis McNulty, son of a city engineer, choir boy at St. Patrick's Cathedral, second ranking honor student at Manhattan College, president and soloist of that school's glee club, and winner of Mayor LaGuardia's vocational scholarship upon his graduation in 1938.
"Mac," as he was better known in those days, chose to exercise the scholarship by accepting a job at Radio Station WNYC. His four amateur appearances with Larry Clinton's NBC Campus Club the previous spring had whetted his appetite for radio. But far from becoming an immediate tenor sensation, Mac put in his time at WNYC as a glorified office boy, saving every penny he could toward the day when he could afford to enter law school. At times he showed up at WHN where as Teddy Powers he sang as soloist with the Ballou and Albert orchestras.
In October an appendectomy upset his well-laid plans When he was released from the hospital his savings were gone and he was faced with the necessity of making money quickly to regain lost ground.
Friml Recognized Talent.
Spurred on by Rudolph Friml Jr., who recognized his vocal talent after hearing him at a party, McNulty took the more appealing professional name Dennis Day (his own middle name plus his grandmother's maiden name) and began the heart-breaking routine of auditions. He was rewarded finally in June, when Del Peters of CBS signed him for the tenor spot on Ray Block's Musical Varieties. He started at the stupendous salary of $21 per week, of which an agent got 10 per cent.
A faux pas made during the second and last broadcast with Block made Dennis believe that he had snuffed out a promising career. After singing one song Dennis stepped out of the studio momentarily for a drink of water. Maestro Block, crossing him up, went immediately into the introduction of Day's next song instead of a band number. Dennis reached the mike on cue, but his first note should have been put through a wringer.
The error wasn't as tragic as Dennis had assumed, however, for he next was given the vocal berth on Leith Stevens's "Accent on Music," and was making his debut on this CBS series when Mary Livingstone heard him. She located his manager, obtained a record of the broadcast and flew with it to Jack, who was then in Chicago. After playing the record Jack returned to New York to audition Day.
Over 200 Vocalists In Try-outs.
All in all, Jack listened to more than 100 of the nation's best tenors during the summer, and his radio producer, Murray Bolen, heard that many more. But Dennis, a shy youngster who came along about number fifty, had the inside track from the moment Jack heard him.
Funny thing, too. Last June, when Day heard that Kenny Baker wouldn't be with Jack this fall he stroked that piece of Blarney Stone without which he wouldn't feel completely dressed, and immediately was seized with the feeling that he was destined to be the next Jack Benny tenor. Common sense told him that it was a crazy idea, since he had only one professional broadcast behind him at the time, and a few weeks later, when Jack Benny asked him to audition, Dennis felt as if he'd known about it and had [two words missing] it all along.
[Dennis left New York for Hollywood and] arrived early in September and made an immediate hit with the rest of the gang. But still no contracts were signed. On the spur of the moment Jack embarked for Treasure Island, pushed on to New York, Detroit and Chicago, and headed home with his mind made up to send for Dennis and give him a trial. But when Jack reached Hollywood he found that Dennis was still in town. No one had told him to go home. Dennis, figuring that he ought to stay under cover lest the cat get out of the bag and spoil his chances, had been practically hiding out for four weeks—and was he homesick!
Selected Own Stage Mother.
Homesick . . . mother . . . stage mother!! Jack had an idea. Why not introduce Dennis by means of a hard-boiled, domineering stage mother, who'd see to it not only that Dennis was protected from Hollywood, but also that Jack's life was made characteristically miserable?
Benny, his secretary, Harry Baldwin; his writers, Bill Morrow and Ed Beloin; Mary Livingstone and Producer Murray Bolen began auditioning "stage mothers," with Dennis sitting in. They finally eliminated all but two, voted, and wound up in a three-three deadlock. "Dennis, it'll be your mother," said Jack. "You cast the deciding vote."
Thus Dennis Day, probably the only lad on record who's had the privilege of choosing his own mother, said: "I like Miss Felton, Mr. Benny. She sounds like she'd be a world of protection to me. And so Verna Felton, who has been mother to Phil Harris, Don Wilson and "Tom Sawyer Benny," became the bass-voiced maternal protector of Dennis Day.
Now that he's been made a regular member of the Jack Benny gang and is succeeding in one of the toughest spots so young a singer ever had to fill, there to just one question that's uppermost in Dennis Day's mind: "Mr. Benny, will we do a show or two from New York this year?"

Day turned out to be a brilliant find. Somewhere along the way, Benny and his writers discovered he could do broad dialects and comic impressions, and enhanced the show by adding them to the scripts. And his timing was tops too, something you can probably say about all the main cast members on the Benny show. Day died June 22, 1988. He had a 40-year marriage and a longer career in entertainment. You might say a break and talent were his special Powers.

1 comment:

  1. There's a certain irony in Teddy Powers getting his first big break on WHN, since that was the New York City radio station owned by MGM, which also was the studio that Kenny Baker ended up with when he left Jack's show. So Metro was both responsible for taking Jack's tenor away and setting up his replacement.